Noah’s Nonexistent Nosy Neighbors

This March, the blockbuster film Noah will hit theaters. I’m going to be preaching on the story of Noah and the flood this Sunday.

I always find the movie versions of Bible stories fascinating, because everything—everything—depends on the interpretation. I like to ask people, “If you were the director, how would YOU tell this story?” Who would you cast in what roles? Does the race or ethnicity of the people you cast matter? Where do you set the story? In the story of Noah, which has virtually no dialogue, what words do you put into people’s mouths? Why? Every camera angle, every CGI bird or snake, every line of dialogue, every music choice for the soundtrack are interpretations of this ancient story.

I find the trailer for Noah fascinating because there is no mention of Noah’s neighbors at all in the text. (You can read the story here.) I grew up hearing the popular version of the story: Noah must have had tremendous faith, because he obeyed God. His neighbors laughed at him, because who builds a boat in the middle of a desert? Boy, I bet they were sorry when the rain started falling!

Yet there is no mention of Noah’s location. He could be on an island, for all we know. The story probably originated in a place we call the Fertile Crescent, so it’s unlikely the author is thinking of a desert. There is no mention of neighbors. Perhaps no one lives nearby. So why a desert? And why do we feel it necessary to add skeptical neighbors? Is it because many of us who have never been to the middle east imagine that it’s all desert, and that we imagine people walked around in it wearing bathrobes and head scarves? Is it because as religious people, we find it galling to have skeptics point out our irrational faith, so we have to make them the bad guys? I find it fascinating that this version of the story still holds such sway over people’s imaginations. We just assume this is part of the story, like we assume that Jesus had long hair and a beard. We no longer even recognize these as interpretive choices that we make about the text. For us, they are part of the story.

Several non-religious folks I know wonder, “What does it matter? It’s a made-up story anyway.” But regardless of whether you are a true believer or not, the way we tell stories matters. Does it matter that Noah’s neighbors, never mentioned in the text, are portrayed in the popular telling as skeptics who laugh at his faith? Yes. Does it matter how “the wickedness of humankind” which God seeks to destroy is portrayed? Yes.

And if it matters to non-religious folks how the story is told, how much more should it matter to believers! This is why we need to study rhetoric, and film, and theories of interpretation (hermeneutics). As believers, if we don’t study the stories critically, we just embed our own prejudices in them and pass them along to the next generation. As skeptics, if we just exchange old myths for new ones, we do the same.

The author(s) of this story had an agenda. In order to faithfully read the Bible, interpret it, and apply it to our lives, we need to figure out that agenda and what it means for us today.

Which is why you need to come to worship at Saint Junia on Sunday 😉

God’s Wrath (And Other Inconveniences)

I’m excited about starting a new sermon series this Sunday.

Does God Have a Temper Problem? from Dave Barnhart on Vimeo.

I don’t think Christians wrestle with this issue enough, honestly. Plenty of atheists are happy to point out that although we say “God is love,” it seems that kind of love is often smiting people rather indiscriminately, slaughtering entire towns, including children. Christians—people I consider my friends, even educated clergy colleagues—will often float the argument that the genocide detailed in the book of Joshua was necessary. You know, because of the corrupting influence of the surrounding cultures.

……o-kay. That’s more or less always the reason for genocide, right? Corrupting influences and the purity of the race?

One good reason for leaving literalism-which-isn’t-really-literalism behind is that it leads us to this kind of thinking: that God is the kind of God who kills kids, giving our Lord and Savior the same moral character as school shooters.

Yet historians and archeologists cast doubt on whether this kind of large-scale invasion ever happened, which points us, I believe, toward a better way of thinking about these stories. What were the original authors of these stories trying to tell their audiences? What was their lived experience of siege warfare, cultural assimilation, and persecution?

In the Noah story, I believe the author is raising critical questions about the violence we attribute to God. I think the same is true in the story of Jonah, and Tamar, and Job, and in prophets like Isaiah.

I think Jesus expresses a Jewish tradition that is highly critical (and self critical) of violence and its users. We understand the wrath of God not in plagues, floods, or invading armies that hurt our enemies, but in the cross, where we see our complicity in the injustice and ugliness of the world.

Three Axioms and an Apology

1. All theology is political.

2. Theology which claims it is not political is both political and dishonest.

3. Theological language which attempts to transcend politics, casts aspersions on “both sides” of an issue, or is deployed to make its users feel better about their privilege is political, dishonest, and condescending.

4. I’ve definitely been guilty of #3.

Abusing scriptures: “Go and sin no more.”

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Nicolas Poussin. From Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ parting words to the woman caught in adultery are “Go your way, and do not sin again.” This is a favorite line for Christians who wish to maintain that Christian ethics demands forgiveness, but not the excusing of continued sexual immorality. It crops up with tiresome regularity in discussions about the acceptability of gay and lesbian love in church communities. (The argument only makes sense if you already agree that homosexuality is a sin). Jesus forgives the woman, goes the reasoning, but he doesn’t excuse her sin.

This is certainly one way to read the passage, and I’m happy to consider this understanding of it (even if I reject the implication that gay or lesbian love is the moral equivalent of adultery). But I find it troubling how we use this passage to construct a theological system about sin and how we approach it within Christian community. Doing so places us right back in the position of the murderous men.

A couple of preliminary points:

First, I think it’s important to point out that this story is an addition to John. I don’t think that necessarily decreases its legitimacy as a Jesus story, or as an authoritative, inspired text, but I think it’s important to point out before exegeting it.

Second, there’s a great detailed summary of the social situation of the woman in this blog post, which suggests that the title should not be “The Woman Caught in Adultery” but “Jesus and the Murderous Men.” Capital punishment by subjugated people under Roman occupation was actually illegal. Occupiers tend to frown upon native populations carrying out their own executions, which is why Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be killed. These men bring the woman to Jesus to be stoned in violation of Roman law and accepted Jewish practice, which called any council that condemned more than one person to death in seven years a “murderous” council.

If we want to figure out how “sin” is used in this story, it doesn’t make sense to talk about Jesus’ words to the woman without also connecting it to his statement to the men. They bring a woman (and not a man) to Jesus to be stoned. He tells them, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” So nobody does. They all walk away. But Jesus doesn’t tell them to go and sin no more. They leave of their own accord.

Why? Why wouldn’t they stick around to see if someone would pick up a rock? Why didn’t they engage in a discussion with Jesus about which sins are punishable by death and which ones are not? This is the usual pattern in discussions with Jesus and religious leaders. I honestly can’t imagine Christians who quote the “go and sin no more” line giving up so easily and melting back into the crowd. They would at least want to stick around and hear what Jesus said to the woman.

Is “sin no more” implied in Jesus’ words to the men? If he were to tell them to sin no more, what sin would he be referring to? To their private (and perhaps sexual) sins? To the sin of dragging a woman in front of him to be stoned? Or is their sin just sort of a generic, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) variety?

I really like Tony’s observations about the “muddy” situation that the woman is in, and that the whole violence-against-women narrative is not incidental to the story. Discussions about what constitutes sin (sexual or otherwise) and who is guilty of it are frequently tied to ways we legitimize violence. We don’t actually know her story. We accept the men’s accusations at face value. It is entirely possible that she has been sexually mistreated, married off at an early age and against her will. It is possible that she has been set up, or even raped. If so, “Go and sin no more” sounds like blaming the victim. Is Jesus complicit in a culture of rape and violence?

Or maybe Jesus means the words differently. Do we hear Jesus’ words to her in the same way we hear his words to the murderous men? Are we sure that his “Go and sin no more” is a reference to her adultery, or might it refer to something else? After all, if we’re going to let the men off with generic sinfulness, why do we assume the word “sin” refers to her alleged adultery?

Or maybe Jesus is just treating her as their equal (and equally capable of judgment and violence). Perhaps, having been cleared of her sin (“neither do I condemn you”), she is truly free from slut-shaming culture. If so then the men, it would seem, are still stuck in their sin. After all, Jesus doesn’t tell them to sin no more. Their shame keeps them from asking forgiveness from either Jesus or the woman they have dragged before him. They wander away before hearing any words that release them from their condemnation.

Shouldn’t they have apologized? Does our shame keep us from reconciling with people we have judged? It’s possible that this is not a happy ending. Her accusers go back to their judgmental ways. Are we to imagine that the crowd that had shamed her will treat her as an equal from now on, and not refer to her as “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” the way we do?

I also don’t think the story is complete without looking at the ways Jesus discusses sin in other places in John. In one story, he tells a formerly paralyzed man not to sin so that nothing worse happens to him. In another, when his disciples ask him whose sin caused a man to be born blind, Jesus says, “No one.” Is it possible to put together a coherent theology of sin, forgiveness, and the divine will from these passages without doing intellectual acrobatics?

I love this story. It’s one reason I’m not content to say it doesn’t belong in John’s gospel. But I think it’s sad that we appropriate a scripture that explicitly rejects violence and inequality to legitimize more violence and inequality. It’s abusing scripture: abusing it and using it to abuse.

When Jesus Worried About Numbers (John 6)

It has been an amazing week. Jesus has just had a record attendance at one of his speaking gigs—multiple thousands. He has pulled off a miracle in feeding them all. Everyone is pumped. The momentum of The Way is building fast, and it even begins to get a bit out of control. People want to make Jesus king—by force (John 6:15).

But just as it begins to look like they will go from success to success, Jesus sticks his foot in it. First, he makes himself scarce at the height of his popularity (6:15). Next, he questions the motives of his fans (6:26). Finally, he starts talking about people eating his flesh, which is always a bit off-putting (6:57).

People stop following him. The crowds dwindle. The morning after a particularly disappointing attendance, Jesus sees his original twelve talking among themselves. They stop talking when he approaches. He looks at them and asks,

“Are you going to leave, too?”

I’m not used to hearing Jesus sound this despondent. In fact, it scares me a bit to hear him this dejected.

I’ve read this passage many times, but before I’ve always heard this as a rhetorical question. I’ve imagined Jesus saying it calmly, almost flippantly, even though he already knows the answer, because he’s omniscient, right?

But as a pastor starting a new church, I know how important those attendance numbers become. You begin thinking that the numbers indicate God’s approval rating. You start taking them personally. When I catch myself thinking this way, I usually try to give myself a pep talk. You may know the phrases: “Where two or more are gathered,” “It’s not quantity, it’s quality,” and so on. But I’ve always had my eyes on the numbers, whether I’ve been speaking to a handful or a thousand people. There’s energy in crowds. I like approval. When crowds shrink, I start to panic and wonder what I’ve done wrong.

But even at my lowest I’ve not felt the pain in Jesus’ words when he turns to his friends and asks, “Are you going to leave, too?”  I hear this not as a rhetorical question, but as real human pain and fear. Jesus is worried.

It is comforting, in a way, to know that Jesus was not immune to the effect of numbers, that he felt disappointment when his crowds dwindled and his popularity decreased. I’m glad that he woke up with a pessimistic attitude and expected the worst, because I feel like that more days than I want to admit. I used to resist the idea that Jesus would ever get his feelings hurt, but now I understand better. I can relate. He can relate.

I’m also glad that his students become his teachers, because that’s the way real life works: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68). It isn’t about the numbers. It’s about the message. The news is so compelling that some of us are drawn to speak it and hear it, whether it’s a group of 5000 or of 5. If you ask those of us who become his followers why we do so, we just shrug. What else can we do? He has the words of eternal life.

Joining God in the Renewal of All Things

This is a draft of the first page of the discipleship book I’m working on. I used to dislike the word “evangelical,” because it has picked up so much political baggage over the last several decades, but I have come to realize “evangelical” is exactly what I aspire to be: someone who delivers good news.

cropped-mossy-railroad-car.jpg

———————————

I’m inviting you to join God in the renewal of all things.

Actually, I’m just delivering the invitation. God does the inviting. I think this is cool for several reasons:

  1. God wants you
  2. to join God
  3. in what God is already doing.

You may not believe in God, or in the Bible, or think of yourself as particularly religious. You may have a low opinion of churches and church people, or of people who call themselves “Christian” and talk about Jesus all the time. Or you may have a low opinion of yourself and your own value, and doubt that God would be interested in inviting you to do anything. That’s fine. The invitation still stands.

In one famous Bible story, a king (representing God) invites people who claim to be his friends (religious people) to a banquet, and they all refuse. Fed up with their hypocrisy, the king orders his servants to go invite people off the street until all the seats are filled. After they do so, there are still empty seats, and so the king orders his servants to just go grab random people and compel them to come in, until the banquet hall is filled with people “both good and bad.” Those random people represent the rest of us sinners, saints, and skeptics who never expected to receive an invitation! Some of us find ourselves sitting in the banquet hall hardly aware of how we ended up in this place. Maybe a friend even “compelled” you to come in! Apparently God is less concerned with the value judgments of people than we are. God wants you.

I suppose God could do this on God’s own, but that’s not the way God works. Some religious people like to describe God as all-powerful, sovereign, and in control, and I suppose those descriptions are true. But they are also often irrelevant, because God is first a lover and a creator. Lovers and creators (like parents and artists) know that both creation and loving involve giving up control. God made people in all their rich and wonderful diversity so they could participate with God in creating something wonderful. God wants us to join with each other and with God in God’s project of renewing and salvaging a broken world.

And God is already doing it. Everywhere he went, Jesus said that “the kingdom of the heavens is at hand.” Although many of his contemporaries believe that the kingdom meant something far off in the future, and although lots of people today believe that “heaven” is somewhere they go when they die, Jesus meant something different. “The kingdom of the heavens,” or the kingdom of God, represented the state of the world when people would finally live at peace with themselves, each other, and all creation; when oppression would end, everyone would have enough to live and thrive, and the world would be healed. Jesus believed in it so strongly he taught it as a prayer that summed up his teaching: “Our Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed. Let your will be done on earth as it is in the heavens.” Moreover, he taught that this kingdom was already breaking through into the world, like a growing plant pushing through the soil. Unlike many modern religious people, he did not see this kingdom as the destruction of the earth, but the renewal of it.

So, there’s the invitation: Join God in the renewal of all things. It’s already underway. Do you want a piece of this action?

Atonement: Christ the Victor

I’m glad to see Christus Victor gaining more traction among popular Christianity. There are even a few contemporary Christian songs that borrow some of the concepts. I’ll confess I get a bit antsy, though, because the Commercial Evangelical Juggernaut is really good at appropriating other theological ideas and using them to dress up the same tired theology of power and violence.

There is a great book on the subject, but I think the best way to illustrate it is with the following video.

The best strength of Christus Victor theology is that it takes seriously the whole story of Jesus’ life: incarnation, birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. His incarnation makes atonement, because by taking on our flesh and our frailty, God is with us. Even our human limitations become holy. His birth makes atonement, because he transforms what we mean by power, family, love, and mortality. His life makes atonement, because God has to learn to walk and share, just as we do, making the whole process of learning holy and pointing us toward maturity. His ministry make atonement as God shows us what real humanity looks like, spreading grace everywhere he goes. His death makes atonement, not because he dies in place of us, but in solidarity with us. And his resurrection makes atonement, because even our rejection and our failure to recognize him does not stop God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ.

By contrast, in the story told by most Western Protestants (“penal substitutionary atonement”), the only thing that really matters about Jesus is his death. As one Christmas banner put it, he was “born to die.” This allows Christians to support, among other things, capital punishment — after all, if God believes in redemptive violence, shouldn’t we?

In the popular imagination, it isn’t even Jesus’ death that makes atonement, but his suffering. Because he bears the sin of the whole world, his suffering must be the most profound and severe in the cosmos, and we elevate the brutality of his death. Yet in the Hebrew Bible, it is simply the blood that makes atonement—not the pain. Sacrificial animals were sacrificed humanely, and the entire point of doing so was that people could enjoy a covenant meal of reconciliation with God.

I think the penal substitutionary view is bankrupt, and will become increasingly so in our lifetimes. Moral violence does not make us safer, it supports bullying, abuse, inequality, and oppression, and it stands in contrast to everything Jesus preached and taught. A theology of God that depends on redemptive violence is the best ideological ally of white straight male supremacy. I believe we are seeing it crumble before our eyes: nearly all of the news headlines these days are about it. I don’t want to sound too optimistic. Violence and the Kingdom of Death can get quite cozy with whoever happens to be in power.

In the Christus Victor story, though, we focus on the things Jesus actually said and did, not the abstract idea of his role as a sacrificial animal. This is why I think Christus Victor is gaining traction, and why it will continue to do so.

I’ve already written about understanding atonement through Jesus as a moral teacher. In my next post, I plan to write a bit about how I’m learning to reclaim and reinterpret the idea of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking on Homosexuality

I managed to make it through college, seminary, and grad school with most of my prejudices intact. I won’t overstate my bigotry: “I had gay friends,” but I was the kind of person who would use that phrase when defending my prejudices.

What changed me was being a pastor. I was entrusted with the spiritual care of real live human beings. My first appointment was to a small church in rural, red-state, Bible-belt Alabama, which was the last place, in my naiveté, I would have expected to face questions of gender identity and sexuality. (Now, I realize I should have known better—but I should have known better about a lot of things.)

Nor did I expect that God was going to do heart surgery on me through the people God introduced to me. Within the span of a few  months I met several persons who walked into my office and told me either that they were gay or had struggled with their gender identity. One described the way a former church had tried to exorcise him of the demons of homosexuality. He said it was terrifying. Another talked about the way he had finally just given up trying and decided to be promiscuous, which ended badly. Another, taking the Bible literally, cut off his offending member rather than have his whole body cast into hell.

In spite of the pain they brought into the room, they also brought faith of a caliber that shamed my own. I was not worthy to be pastor to these wounded faith giants. I felt both the weight of the moment and an almost giddy sensation that the Holy Spirit was coordinating this whole thing. Sometimes I felt nudged to speak, and other times I felt prompted to hush. Each story was uniquely painful and grace-filled. After describing the burdens they had carried for years and decades, I was astonished that any of these people decided to stick with church. We cried and prayed together.

After one such conversation, my visitor left. As soon as the door clicked behind him I got on my knees, not because I’m a particularly holy person who kneels to pray, but because my legs couldn’t hold me up. I remember saying, “God, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. How am I supposed to think about this stuff? What am I supposed to say? How am I supposed to be this person’s pastor?”

Feeling compelled to read the Bible, I dragged myself to my table and sat down to look at the text I was studying. And I read these words:

“…[the Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them…” (Matthew 23:4)

I couldn’t catch my breath.

Several things clicked at once: These guys had burdens placed upon them by others (people like me) that had nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus said his interpretation of religious Law, his yoke, was easy and his burden light (11:38). His opponents, the religious leaders, accused him of abolishing the Law (5:17) and ignoring their pet scriptures about holiness and who was “in” and who was “out.” The fundamentalists of Jesus’ day were threatened by his message of an easy yoke, and they made his followers out to be “abolishers of the law.” In response, Jesus  commanded his followers to out-love, out-pray, and out-give his detractors (5:21-7:27).

Choose your yoke- heavy or light?

This is what a yoke looks like.

I suddenly had a new focus for my ministry. I was supposed to be a burden-lifter, one who removes the barriers that religious leaders often put in the way of folks who need Jesus. I read more.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13-15)

Locked out of the kingdom. An evangelical program of hate. There are no better words to describe anti-gay Christianity.

Although I’ve never preached an anti-gay sermon, I had listened to them with a sense of smug approval. Like Paul, I had held the cloaks of people who had been throwing rocks at others. This was my own Damascus-road moment, when I knew that God was not finished bringing people into the kingdom, and God wanted to change my heart and mind. I went back and devoured the story of the early church in Acts and the letters of Paul, and I read with new eyes the stories about the hot-button issues of their day: circumcision and meat sacrificed to idols.

So many things changed for me in the following weeks and months: the meaning of the word evangelize, to spread good news; the meaning of the word salvation, healing; all the words in the New Testament related to yokes and burdens and Jesus’ conflicts with religious leaders, and why they couldn’t recognize Jesus’ divine mission because of who  his friends were. Like Paul, I felt that I had been blind, but that God was restoring my sight. As I think about my past, I’m still learning that God was working on me decades before I imagined writing about God’s impartiality.

I’m writing this not to be self-congratulatory. I live with white, male, heterosexual privilege in a world that is oriented toward my success, and I am a relative latecomer to this worldview. I’m writing this because it was being a servant-leader in the church that really changed me—not social pressure, not my academic education. It was being given responsibility for leading others.

Being a pastor is more about being willing to be led by God and changed by the people I meet than issuing infallible decrees from a pulpit, more about admitting I’m wrong and sharing my frailty than pretending I know God’s will on a given subject. One friend describes preaching as a “homiletical wager,” and I’ve come to believe that pastoring, presuming to be a spiritual leader, is bit like gambling with God, where the stakes are very high but I’m betting the game is rigged toward grace.

I also know that plenty of folks have turned their backs permanently on the church, on religion, on Jesus, because they have struggled with heavy yokes and been locked out of the kingdom of God. I’ve had the privilege of helping a few hear the good news in the Good News, and seen them stand up straighter when the yoke is lifted off their shoulders. The church is still a place where prisoners are released and slaves are set free.

There are other pastors out there who keep on tying up heavy burdens that they will never have to lift. They give me plenty of work to do as a burden-lifter. If any of you pastors are reading this, please hear me: the easy yoke is a lot better. Letting prisoners go is a joy. Don’t be afraid of the people who tell you you’re abolishing the law by doing so. Don’t let them make you ashamed of the gospel. Out-give, out-pray, and out-love them. That knot of fear inside you will finally relax, and you may find freedom, too.

The Politics of Jesus

Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees. These were the political parties of Jesus’ day, and it’s interesting that his disciples were made up of a hodge-podge of nearly all of them.

You had James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” and Simon the Zealot, who advocated the violent overthrow of Rome. You had Levi, who had been a tax-collector—a Roman collaborator! You had Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and people like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who may have been Essenes (along with John the Baptist). Jesus was a crossover figure, someone who managed to connect with many different social and political groups. Even Greek-speaking hellenized Jews wanted to see Jesus.

Jesus used rhetoric common to several different parties. He used the apocalyptic language of the “Kingdom of God” and “the resurrection” which many people interpreted literally, though it’s pretty clear he gave it his own unique twist. He took the hot-button topics of his day, like divorce and taxes, and managed to navigate the complex policy positions of disparate political groups.

Preachers often say that Jesus is not the property of any modern political party, but they seldom talk about the way he dealt with political factions himself. I think what is impressive in these gospel stories is how deftly and rationally he handles complex political and religious issues: the competing religious schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shimmei had definite opinions on things like divorce and other matters of religious law, and Jesus takes a position on them. He does so in a way that is rhetorically brilliant and grace-filled.

But he is not a wimp. Matthew’s Jesus even uses polemic, a rhetorical full-scale assault on one’s ideological opponents. In Matthew 23 he spends an entire chapter ripping them up one side and down the other:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them!
(Matthew 23:13)

Keep in mind, this is the same Jesus who in Chapter 5 told his followers not to call someone else a fool, yet in this chapter he does that and worse.

Most readers of the Bible figure the Pharisees were a monolithic group that opposed Jesus, but actually there were plenty of Pharisees who followed Jesus. Pharisees emphasized living a lifestyle of holiness and ethical behavior in relation to God, much like the early Jesus movement. Naturally, some Pharisees became Christians. The main point of contention between the Pharisee-Christians and the others was whether or not circumcision and food regulations would be binding on non-Jewish converts.

The “liberal”-leaning early church decided that such regulations would not be binding. So when this early church told the stories of Jesus in the gospels, they made sure to include Jesus’ polemical rant in Matthew 23. It became natural to think of all Pharisees as people who “locked others out of the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s why his criticisms still sound so relevant today.

I’m not saying that the gospels cannot be trusted, or that the authors were practicing revisionist history. I’m just pointing out that polarization affected how they told the story. Although Jesus occasionally said nice things about the scribes and Pharisees (as in this story), those sayings didn’t get the same amount of air time.

We can also see polarization happen in John’s gospel. Again and again, John points out how Jesus’s words and actions divided the people around him:

Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. (John 9:16)

…For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’ Again the Jews were divided because of these words. (John 10:17-19)

For John, people either got Jesus or they did not. Those who understood the character and personality of God recognized God’s character and personality in Jesus. Those who claimed to know God but did not, on the other hand, rejected him as being from God. John attributes polarization to the character of people’s hearts.

When I hear modern people complain about polarization and hear them wish for greater unity among Christians of different political persuasions, I am reminded of the polarization that happened in the early church. Had that polarization not happened, most of us bacon-eating, sabbath-defying, foreskin-wearing (or not) Gentiles would not be followers of Jesus. These divisions were deeply theological and reflected how differently people thought about God. They also reflected people’s character: plenty of haters wrapped their hatred in holy language. Polarization can happen for either reason.

Many Christians’ contemporary political disagreements likewise reflect deep theological differences in how we understand 1) the character, purpose, and personality of God, 2) the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, and 3) the nature, purpose, and destiny of humankind and all of creation. The polarization we experience in our political lives is seldom about which policy best matches our theology or achieves our common goals: It’s about whether we have common goals and theology at all. If we do not delve deeply into our disagreements and honestly talk about what’s at stake for us in our positions, we will never have those important conversations about what our faith actually means. Of course, as I noted in my last post, I’m someone who likes arguing. I find such stuff philosophically stimulating. I even like being wrong occasionally.

I do have hope that people of diverse political opinions can come together around Jesus, just as his disciples did. When I workshopped my book, I was pleased that people of very different views could have excellent conversation around some controversial ideas. People on all quadrants of the political plane were able to have conversation about the Bible, which they held in mutual esteem. But I’m strongly opposed to minimizing those differences, and I remain committed to the idea that it is entirely possible to argue without being acrimonious, that it is important to call out dishonest rhetoric and name polemic and ad hominem attacks, to insist on data and good scholarship, and to lay all of our cards on the table. It is important to say, “This is what is at stake for me.” Only in this kind of context does the word “unity” have any meaning.

I like to imagine how Jesus would navigate the political rhetoric of our day. A lot of preachers seem to think that he wouldn’t choose sides, but I believe part of his mass appeal was about articulating a divine, paradoxical mix of common sense, unconventional wisdom, and religious zeal while he did stake out his position. How would Jesus talk about our own tax system, or health care system, or foreign policy? Is Jesus okay with drone attacks? How would Jesus deal with the woman caught in the act of abortion, or the faction of people who want to legalize marijuana? How would Jesus talk to the tea party, or to the Occupy crowd? Where would his political sympathies lie? They had “gotcha” journalism back in the day, too—how would he deal with our modern rhetorical traps?

Thank God for Polarization

In each election season, my earnest, hand-wringing Christian colleagues always want to tell people that Jesus is “neither a Democrat nor a Republican.” Jesus transcends politics, and Christians should not try to recruit him to support their own partisan positions. This is true in some ways, but it is also toxic rhetoric.

In far more rancorous, polarized times than these, imagine clergy saying these things:

Jesus is neither for nor against women’s suffrage.
Jesus is neither for nor against segregation.
Jesus is neither for nor against child labor.

All of them are true. These are not things Jesus ever talked about. But are they issues that are irrelevant to the gospel? Earnest, sincere, Bible-believing Christians came down on both sides of these issues. Were all of their positions of equal moral value? Were some of them wrong? What would be a “fair and balanced” way to talk about these issues and Christian faith?

There are people—jerks, mostly—who say things like, “You can’t be a Christian and a Democrat.” I have not actually heard someone say that one can’t be a Christian and a Republican, but I’ll go ahead and assert that there are probably some out there who believe the same. I think most thinking people would agree that Christians might hold a variety of political beliefs and come from a variety of backgrounds. This is why I think it can be condescending to remind people that Jesus is not the property of any political party. While the statement is true, its language can take some of the most important issues for theological argument off the table, and it can turn questions like “how can we best reduce poverty and do justice?” into matters of mere personal preference.

I do not honestly see how pastors who promote this view of politics can take offense when people treat their own religion the same way—as mere tribal loyalty, a private matter of preference, something that shouldn’t be talked about in polite company or among friends. 

Okay, here are my qualifying statements: First, I understand that for some of us, striving for harmony is a strength, and part of this is a personality issue. Harmony is not my strength: I would rather have an argument with a true believer who disagrees with me than share small talk with someone who wants to brush our differences under the rug.

Second, I know Christians can disagree: I have known some very faithful, kind-hearted people who are the polar opposite of me on the political spectrum, and I have known some jerks who are closer to me theologically and politically than I care for them to be. People are all over the map, and loving them can be a challenge.

Finally, I also know that yes, people can get so wrapped up in political rhetoric that they demonize their opponents.

But folks who argued for nonviolent resistance during the struggle for civil rights talked about loving their enemies too much to let them get away with oppression. When I point this out, people say “yes, but that was a different situation.” Exactly: The oppression of our day depends upon us romanticizing the past, thinking that such radical expressions of faith belong to another era for more important issues.

Jesus promised his followers that those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness would be filled, and that peacemakers would be called Children of God. But he also said that such righteousness-seeking and Jesus-following would result in persecution. Are we a-political pastors training a church to be so fearful of conflict that it will fold at the first sign of criticism? How can we expect our members to be bold about their faith if their leaders are experts at equivocation? How do we model engaging and wrestling with political conflict?

Sure, I recognize that people on the opposite side of the political spectrum could make the same arguments. I should point out that many of them are, and from the leftward-leaning side there is largely the sound of crickets and passing traffic. But I am glad that there are more and more voices resisting the slow political drift of the church. The default conflict-avoiding position of the church is necessarily conservative: “Don’t move too fast!” is what many clergy, both white and black, told Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s the natural reaction of people who want to resist change of any kind: delay, distract, deny.

Thank God someone got polarized. Everyone in the middle was fine with injustice.